Music in the New Testament Church

11. The singing of hymns

Early history

The Greek word for “hymns” (humneo) was originally a heathen word.

In classical Greek it was a festive lyric in praise of a hero or a god. Pagan people in their perverse worship of cultic gods regularly used this word. Such festive lyrics and music were an intrinsic part of mystery cults such as the cult of Kybele, who used drums, cymbals, and wind instruments. The Carthaginians sang heathen lyrics (humneo) to Saturn, the Phrygians rang bells and sang such songs to chase away demons.

Greek religion was not based on a written creed or body of dogma. Certain sacred writings survive in the form of hymns, oracles, inscriptions, and instructions to the dead. Most elaborate are the Homeric Hymns, some of which may have been composed for religious festivals, though their subject matter is almost entirely mythological. Delphic inscriptions include hymns to Apollo but, like the Epidaurian hymn by Isyllus to Asclepius, they are not concerned with liturgy

(Greek hymnos: “song of praise,” in honour of gods, heroes, or famous men), is in biblical terms, a song used in Christian worship, usually sung by the congregation and characteristically having a metrical, strophic (stanzaic), non-biblical text. Christian hymnody derives basically from the singing of psalms in the Hebrew Temple. The earliest fully preserved text (c. AD 200 or earlier) is the Greek “Phos hilarion” (“Go, Gladsome Light,” translated by the 19th-century U.S. poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow).

In the Septuagint and earlier times there seemed to be hardly a distinction if any between the terms “psalms” and “hymns”. Unfortunately, the word hymn was so steeped in profane and idolatrous associations that the early Christians hesitated to use it.

Hymnody developed systematically, only after the emperor Constantine legalized Christianity (ad 313); and it flourished earliest in Syria, where the practice was possibly taken over from the singing by Gnostics and Manichaeans of hymns imitating the psalms.

“Hymns” contain a component of praise but go beyond praise to speak on varied themes:

i. Hymns speak in song to man of God’s acts, His graces, His character, and His purposes.

ii. Hymns also petition or challenge man to further response towards God.

Hymns are songs of praise which glorify God but which are also directed towards man. They bear a strong horizontal thrust.

New Testament references to hymns

The disciples in the company of Christ sang a “hymn” at their last supper with Him

(Mat 26:30 NIV) When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.
(Heb 2:12 NIV) He says, “I will declare your name to my brothers; in the presence of the congregation I will sing your praises.”

In Hebrews 2.12 the prophecy is given of Christ, “In the midst of the Church will sing praise (Gk., Humneo) to Thee”. This passage is a quotation from Psalms 22:22. This text shows that in the congregation of God’s people, Christ sings “hymns” through His body for two reasons.

i. That they might be sanctified so that He is not ashamed to call them brethren (vs. 11 ).

ii. That praise might be given to the Father (vs. 12).

Paul and Silas in prison “sang praises” (Gk., Humneo, “Hymns”) unto God and the prisoners heard them” (Acts 16:25). The Greek literally reads, “praying they were singing. . .” (Imperfect tense). They were simultaneously blending together prayer and song. These were “new” hymns, mixing prayer, praise, and exhortation to the prisoners. The Greek word for the prisoners listening (“heard”) is a rare verb which means, “to listen with pleasure”. The prisoners were closely attentive to the hymns of Paul and Silas.

Choosing hymns or gospel songs

Hymns are ordained by God to be sung in the local church worship service. The early church sang and composed many hymns. One such early hymn was the Song of the Star. This hymn was written by Ignatius (born 50 A.D.) who was one step removed from the Apostles. Ignatius records this hymn in his work on Ephesians,
Chapter 19. Although the melody is not known, the words in part are the following:

“Now the virginity of Mary was hidden from the prince of this world as was also her offspring. . . A star shone forth in heaven above all the other stars, the light of which was inexpressible . . .

Such hymns continued to be written until eventually a controversy erupted in the third century over whether it was carnal to use songs in the worship service with words written by men, as hymns would naturally be. Some demanded that only Scriptural choruses be used. The Synod of Laodocia (343-381 A.D.) finally forbade the use of hymns composed by men. However, the controversy continued on through the following centuries up to the reformation period.

Scriptural choruses were again very popular in the century following the Reformation. The rediscovery of God’s Word as being above the tradition of the Catholic Church brought an eagerness for Scripture to the virtual exclusion of all else.

Almost the entirety of singing during this time was Scriptural choruses. Some of the more extreme elements in the century following the Reformation felt it was even sinful to use hymns with words of men.

Isaac Watts brought great criticism upon himself in the early 1700s by writing hymns and publishing the first hymnal in 1707. Known as the Father of Hymnology, Watts was responsible for bringing balance to the church.

Many great hymns have been written over the centuries. These should not be ignored. A real danger exists today in a preference for Scriptural choruses to the exclusion of hymn singing. Some people feel that words written by a hymn composer are so inferior to Scripture that they desire to sing only Scripture choruses.

To despise hymn singing is to deny one of the forms of music ordained by God for the church today. It is the same error as those denominational churches who do not allow spiritual songs to operate in their services.

i. All hymns used in worship should be doctrinally sound.
ii. The lyrics should convey an attitude of respect for God.
iii. The songs chosen are best if congruous with the purpose of the service.
iv. Godly music does not seek to duplicate worldly music.
v. Church music seeks to include a variety and balance of musical styles.
vi. Church music is a tool of worship, not an aesthetic art for its own sake.

Remember that the hymn is only the medium of worship. Over-preoccupation with the artistic nature of hymnology could miss the real purpose of worship.